Welcome to Your Historical Compass

"The purpose of this blog is to generate discussions about historical issues. Students, enthusiasts, and friends are all welcome to join by reading and participating with comments. I hope to generate interest in history and offer help to the perplexed." Caleb Johnson

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Six Wives of Henry VIII

The issue of succession has been a problem for all hereditary monarchs, but one king in particular seemed to have more than his share of bad luck. Henry VIII is famous for how many wives he had, and had killed. His fame is not due to his number of wives,. since many kings have had many wives, but because he is peculiar to his age. Henry VIII reigned in late Medieval England where good Christian kings had only one wife their whole lives. Therefore, Henry is the exception to his age and this is one of the things that makes him so interesting.

Why was Henry so obsessed with succession? Well, after the War of  the Roses, the kingdom of England had united the two warring houses of York and Lancaster by marriage under Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York. Their second son was the eventual  King Henry VIII. Thus, Henry embodied the reunification of England and that idea could only be preserved through the birth of a male heir.

When Henry’s older brother Arthur, the Prince of Wales, died, Henry was named heir apparent and married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, on the grounds that the  prior marriage had not been consummated. The marriage was a happy one until it became obvious that Catherine could not fulfill her marriage duties.

 In Medieval Europe, the one and most important job for a queen was to produce an heir to the throne to ensure the continuation of the dynasty. Not only was this an issue of family pride, but national security. If a king died without an heir, he would leave a power vacuum which would often lead to civil war. Since Henry embodied the reunion of the realm after the War of the Roses, he was determined to make sure that a safe line of succession was ready for his dynasty. Unfortunately for Catherine, she only bore Henry one daughter who they called Mary. Henry began to reflect and worry. During his musings he stumbled upon the verse in Leviticus 18:16 which warned men of God not to marry the wife of a brother. He then decided that God had punished him for marrying his brother’s wife and asked the Pope for a divorce, despite Catherine’s protestation of celibacy prior to her marriage to Henry.

Henry sent Cardinal Wolsey to Rome to represent him to the Pope, but the Cardinal failed to secure the divorce. By this time, Henry had become estranged to his wife and had set his eye on the beautiful and ambitious Anne Boleyn.  His hands tied by the Pope, heart run away with Ann,e and mind feeling the pressure of succession, Henry hit upon a solution to his problems that would change England forever.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Republicanism and Democray Pt. 2

Last week, we looked at the pros and cons of Athenian Democracy. Today, we’re going to look at Roman Republicanism. By the end of this post, we should have a better idea of the differences between the two forms of government.

While Athens and the rest of the Greek city-states were developing their cultures and forms of government, another civilization was developing in Latium at the center of Italy. The city of Rome grew on the banks of the Tiber around farming communities and traders. At the center of society was the family. In contrast with Greek emphasis on commitment to the state, Romans were devoted to their families and an honest agrarian lifestyle. This Roman outlook created a very conservative and pious society. It was only natural for a conservative form of government to rise in this atmosphere.

The ruling body of Rome was a council of elders called the Senate. Its members were comprised of the richest and oldest of the city’s citizens and they determined the city’s policies. Senators were not elected; rather, office came from being born into a patrician family. As a sort of executive branch, two senators were elected as consuls for a year. During their term in office, the consuls would lead the legions of Rome into battle. Eventually, a popular Assembly was created to voice the concerns of the people. The Assembly would elect Tribunes who would represent the people to the Senate. Every free, land-owning citizen could vote in the Assembly and it became the popular body of government. Thus, the government of Rome was indirect rule of the people. Some things would be changed by popular vote, but for the most part, the power rested in the unelected Senate. The Senate and Assembly worked together in relative harmony until the Gracchi brothers introduced reforms and land redistribution for veterans. 

Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus were two Senators who took up the cause of veterans of the Punic and Macedonian Wars. Many veterans were taxed out of their homesteads during the wars and had to try to find work in the city. This population influx caused rapid unemployment and rioting. Eventually, the Gracchi brothers introduced legislative reform that was passed due to the backing of the popular, now riotous, Tribunes. Conservative elements in the Senate had the Gracchi brothers killed and repealed the reforms, but the popular voice was too strong. The common people demanded change.

During the years following the death of the Gracchis, several dictators rose to power and began to use their control of the legions to take over the entire system of government. First was Marius, then Sulla, the First Triumvirate, and ultimately Gaius Julius Caesar. After Caesar, the republican form of government was supplanted and overseen by an emperor. Consequently, the weakness of the Roman republican system was that there was no check on executive power since it controlled the military and the purse. This led to the merging of the executive and legislative branches, creating the office of imperator, or emperor.

We can see, then, that democracy and republicanism have similarities, but also have many differences. In a pure democracy, like Athens, the people vote on every issue and decide everything in a popular assembly. In a republic, like Rome, it’s a mix of popular government, like the Assembly, and an unelected body of elders, the Senate. Although both forms of government failed due to the inherent flaws in each system, Athenian democracy ruined that state much faster. As we saw last week, Athens quickly fell to outside powers and had to live the rest of its existence out of the spotlight. Rome, on the other hand, kept parts of its republic even into the imperial age, and we all know how long and glorious that was.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Republicanism and Democracy Pt. 1

Today we often hear representative governments called both democracies and republics. We seem to use those words interchangeably, though we have a vague notion that we shouldn’t. Is there a difference between the two? I think the best way to answer that question is to look at the two states that first practiced the two ideas.

The first state to implement democracy was the ancient Greek city of Athens. In 514 BC, the people of Athens threw out their tyrant, then a legitimate title for ruler, and began “the people’s power” or democracy. The Athenians drew up a system of laws based on the code of Solon, and instituted the concept of a popular vote and majority rule. Here all free male landowners would vote at an assembly and decide the policy of the state. While the theory of this system sounds compelling, its practice proved ruinous.

After obtaining power, the popular assembly became vulnerable to corruption, bribes, and partisan factions. Indeed, once the people realized that they could elect people in the assembly that would give them a share of the public treasury, then the state became bankrupt. During the Peloponnesian War, Athens exiled its most gifted general, Alcibiades, because he had enemies in the assembly. After this, the assembly executed one of the greatest thinkers of all time, Socrates. Evidently, the direct rule of the people and the lack of checks and balances meant that Athens became just as tyrannical as the Tyrants they had overthrown. Minorities of opinion were overrun by the majority and were persecuted. This state of turmoil meant that Athens eventually fell to Phillip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.

Although Athens was able to introduce self rule and democracy, the direct rule of the people degenerated the government into a tyranny that destroyed the freedom of the people. Next week, we'll take a look at the first of the republics. While Athens was wresting itself from the tyrants, a city on the Tiber was growing weary of its own monarch.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

SPQR and the USA

Republics, being molded by the same sorts of people, have in many ways similar histories. Each is formed on the basis of self-government in rejection of an authoritative monarchy. Having the peace and prosperity of its citizens as its chief aim, Republics can do without the detrimental practice of constantly warring against its neighbors. The Roman and American Republics have enough historical similarities to make the observant reader look twice. Let us examine at a few of these similarities.


The city of Rome was founded on the edge of civilization, far from the center of Greek and Persian culture. Life was simple, and rustic virtues were held in high esteem. In 509 BC, the people of Rome threw out the hated Etruscan Monarchy and founded a republic based on a senate and a popular representative body of elected tribunes. From this point the city of Rome expanded and developed independently in the center of Italy. In 1776, the people of the American colonies, also at the edge of civilization, overthrew the monarchy of Great Britain and established its Republic based on a Constitution.

Trend of Isolationism

Early Romans liked to keep to themselves and ignored the politics of the outside world. In 387, the Romans were unexpectedly attacked by the Gauls of northern Italy. This rude awakening forced the Romans to pay attention to international politics and the started a program of alliances with their immediate neighbors. In 1941, the United States was attacked by the Imperial forces of Japan and pulled into the global conflict World War II. In each case, the republics were forced out of isolationism and into a more internationally assertive posture.

Rise to Superpower Status

After the sack of 387 Rome remained, for the most part, concerned with Italy and Sicily. They were dragged into a larger conflict when Carthage attacked Rome’s Sicilian ally. Rome and Carthage eventually had to fight a series of wars that culminated in the final destruction of Carthage and the complete domination of the Western Mediterranean  by Rome. In much the same way, World War II and the subsequent Cold War forced America into an even more powerful position in order to fight both its Axis and Soviet enemies.

Although three examples is a meager sampling of the many similarities of the two Republics, these cannot be ignored. Further examination of the early Roman Republic can only convince the reader that the parallel history of Rome can serve as a mirror with which to examine our own Republic. Perhaps we can indeed learn from both their mistakes and triumphs. If we ignore the similarities of the two republics we may suffer the consequences. For as it has been said, “Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.”

Saturday, June 2, 2012

In 1415, a Czech priest named Jan Huss was condemned and burned at the stake for heresy against the Roman Catholic Church. Jan was, in fact, one of the first of the great Church reformers who stood up against corruption in the Church, what he saw as extra-Biblical practices, and church abuses. Before this time, heretical factions that were persecuted by the Church would eventually melt away, but in 15th century Bohemia the story was different.
Jan Huss

When news of the death of Huss spread throughout Bohemia, the people were outraged. Huss had gained many followers, knights and common people alike, who were tired of Church abuses and the death of their leader meant naught but persecution for them, as well. Protests broke out and a radical event unfolded in the city of Prague when supporters of Huss, now called Hussites, took a burgomaster and some council members and threw them out the second story window of the town hall. This “Defenestration of Prague,” as it came to be known, sent a shock through Bohemia and Moravia that literally killed the Catholic King Wenceslas by way of a heart attack. This power vacuum gave the Hussites time to organize. With full knowledge that the Church wouldn’t sit idly by, the Hussites developed a spectacular war strategy. They came up with a war wagon system in which carts were drawn up in a defensive circle and hand gunners and pike men defended the circle from the protection of the armored wagons.  This strategy was particularly effective against the mounted cavalry of the late Middle Ages and the Hussites gained a fierce reputation for battle prowess.
Hussite wagon circle

When the Papal crusade arrived at Prague, the Hussites were forced to negotiate. However, once the Imperial armies withdrew, the Hussites continued to capture fortresses and consolidate their base.  Indeed, they would withstand three crusades led against them by the Germans and the Church. Despite the repeated attempts of their enemies, the Hussites were able to maintain nominal independence and worship in their own manner.

City of Prague
When the larger Protestant Reformation broke out, the Hussites continued their traditions and joined the larger movement as Protestants. Even to this day, the Czech people are proud of a heritage of standing up for your beliefs and resistance to outside control. Jan Huss and the succeeding Hussites were indeed a reformation before the Reformation.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Familial Exploits of the d’Hauteville Brothers

We are all familiar with the illustrious exploits of William, Duke of Normandy, who conquered the main Island of Britain in 1066. But before their conquest of England, the Normans had already established themselves as a dynamic and mobile force in 11th century Europe. One family in particular distinguished themselves as leaders, explorers and conquerors, they were the d’Hautevilles. The custom of primogeniture was not kind to the eleven younger sons of Tancred d’Hauteville. His petty estate was left to the eldest son and the younger brothers were obliged to look abroad in order to secure their fortune. The first to leave France was William, one of the older brothers. He was enticed by news that the Byzantine Empire was planning the recapture of the Island of Sicily. He took part in the campaign, leading a contingent of Normans to fight alongside the Byzantines. He proved himself in battle and gained the nickname Ironside for his massive strength. The exploits of William Ironside encouraged his brothers and other Normans to seek their fortunes in the central Mediterranean. Eventually Robert, called Guiscard for his craftiness, was able to conquer the whole of southern Italy with a capital at Naples. He harbored ambitions for the conquest of the Byzantine Empire itself, but was foiled in these plans when the Byzantines paid the Venetians to destroy his naval capacity. Despite this setback, the conquests continued. Upon the death of Robert Guiscard, his brother Roger attempted the conquest of Sicily. The aborted Byzantine campaign left the Island in chaos and ripe for conquest. Roger was able to subdue the island and was granted the title “King of the two Sicilies” by the Pope. Robert Guiscard’s son Bohomond found himself cheated out of an inheritance, so he continued the familial practice of conquest abroad. He ended up joining the first crusade to Jerusalem and in the process swore allegiance to the same Emperor his father had warred against. He eventually captured the Biblical city of Antioch and founded his own principality. Thus the d’Hautevilles had spread their legacy from Normandy to Sicily, Naples, Constantinople, and Antioch. It is a wonder that one family could have shaped the setting of Medieval Mediterranean politics, but they did. It is perhaps a testimony of the confusion of the times and a tribute to the Norman strength of arms. The legacy of the d’Hauteville brothers doesn’t directly affect us today, but Medieval Europe was certainly altered by their dynamic ambitions.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Florence, Birthplace of the Renaissance

The Mona Lisa, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Birth of Venus, Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise.  All these great works of art and architecture remind us of the Renaissance. Their forms and beauty speak of an older age when tradition was shaken off and ancient ideas were being reborn to form new thoughts. Surprisingly, these pieces all have one thing in common, which is Florence, Italy. Whether a native artist or architect, or a structure that still graces the city, Florence has left its mark on the Renaissance. Why Florence? What forces of nature or chance or Providence selected this city in the heart of Tuscany to be where greatness occurred?
The Gates of Paradise

Florence, like many of the other Italian city-states, benefited from the struggle between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire. Neither faction could bear to see northern Italy in the other’s control, so the cities in Tuscany and the Po River Valley were able to develop independently.  They formed city-state republics not unlike the ancient Greek polis. Florence was, like the other cities, a textile and trade center. Raw materials came in from the east or north and then were processed by the skilled artisans and craftsmen into fashionable cloth, tools, etc. This economic climate fostered a banking industry that was controlled by a few powerful families. The wealthiest of these families, the Medici, was headed by one of the central political figures of the early Renaissance, Lorenzo deMedici. Lorenzo, in addition to having an interest in politics and finance, had an eye for the fine arts. He built an art studio in one of his palace and patronized some of the leading names of the age, such as da Vinci, Botticelli, and Michelangelo. It was to the patronage of Lorenzo and others like him that such great artists owed their gratitude.

 The crowning splendor of Florence is the orange dome that tops the Cathedral. At the time of its design, the dome was considered a mathematical impossibility, but its secret was mastered by the architect Brunelleschi. Compelled by the city authorities to solve the problem of the dome, Brunelleschi traveled south to study one of the Caesars’ lasting legacies, the Pantheon of Rome. Wrapped in mystery, the Pantheon taunted Brunelleschi to discover the secret of its design. Eventually, Brunelleschi determined that in order to construct a dome of this size, each layer had to be artificially propped up by wooden scaffolds until a keystone ring could be placed at the top to assume the stress. Once this was done, the stress of each layer could be handed down to the next and finally to the base. Although his competitors mocked his efforts, Brunelleschi’s solution was ingenious.

While the focus of the Renaissance eventually shifted to Rome, Florence remained proud of its achievements and its sons. The way that Michelangelo and da’Vinci changed art from two dimensional to three dimensional in both painting and sculpting broke the Medieval patterns and started a new path for future artists. Today, thousands flock to see the marvelous works that still grace the city, and Florence remains one of Italy’s most treasured centers of attraction.